Everyone is talking about professional mastering services. You’ve heard all sorts of buzz about how important mastering is. You probably heard that mastering is required to get that radio-ready sound.
Why is mastering so popular? What I have to say about mastering will certainly change your outlook!
Mastering In The Early Days
To understand all of this, it’s important to know the roots of mastering.
latheIn the early days of vinyl records, after the audio was recorded and mixed—before it could be pressed and copied for sales—a master disc had to be created on a lathe. That master disc was aluminum coated with nitrocellulose lacquer, which was then electroplated with nickel.
It was the mastering engineer’s job to operate that lathe and make sure that the master disc was the best quality possible for mass reproduction.
Early Mastering EQ & Compression
In the early days, the goal of the mastering engineer was to create a clean master copy. The job of the mastering engineer was NOT to improve the sound beyond that which was given to them.
However, it was quickly recognized that some recorded material wasn’t reproduced very well on the consumer vinyl record played back by the listener, due to a large dynamic range, too much low-end energy, extreme stereo width, etc.
Some of those elements mastering were subduing could be good, right? Yes, of course, but let me explain.
If the audio material had too much bass, too much dynamic range, or was too wide, it was at a dangerous risk of pushing the needle out of the groove on general listening.
Additionally, the more dynamic range, the more low-end, and the wider the stereo image, the wider the groove on the vinyl record had to be.
These wide grooves ate in to play time, reducing the number of songs that could fit on an album and still sound good.
As a minor solution to this problem, it wasn’t long before simple bass and treble controls were added to early mastering equipment, and compressors were introduced to deal with the dynamic problem.
If a mix was too bassy, it was easy for the mastering engineer to reduce some of that low-end.
Soon, ballsy Mastering Engineers could reach for those bass and treble controls and tweak them to improve dull mixes, brittle mixes, and more—it was forbidden territory since the mastering engineer’s job was [no more, no less] simply pure reproduction—not improvement—but the door was beginning to open up to create a new art; the art of mastering.
In 1959 Rein Narma designed the Fairchild 670 tube compressor while developing an 8 channel audio mixer for Les Paul.
The Fairchild compressor soon became the standard for top-class mastering facilities, due to it’s clean and transparent signal, robust features, and ability to process stereo material with mid/side processing.
The Fairchild 670 tube compressor was 65 pounds, had 14 transformers, and 20 vacuum tubes.
The mid/side processing in that Fairchild compressor allowed a mastering engineer to compress the mono center—and the wide stereo field—separately.
Finally, by combining this compression technique with basic EQ, it was now possible to control the dynamics in a way that did far less damage to the mix and create a master disc that didn’t produce vinyl records that jumped out of the grooves.
If you want to start mixing your own music it can be very with conflicting advice coming from every direction. While mixing your own music can be frustrating but practice and a few tips will help you get better at it. Here is an easy guide to mixing your own music.
The First Steps
If you are already making some of your own home recording then you probably already have the basic equipment. If you don’t record already then you are going to need, digital audio workstation software, a good quality sound card and some reference monitors. You don’t have to spend a fortune initially but as you get better at mixing you’re going to want to invest in much better equipment. Here is a look at the basic setup that you will need.
The first piece of equipment you need to prepare is your own ears. Great sounding music can sound good in a tin can, but that is not the sound you are looking for. You can get caught up in everything you can do with your audio equipment, but at the end of the day your recordings are only as good as they sound. Listen to some great sounding music played through your system and try and identify the instruments and the vocal harmonies. Learn to appreciate how subtle sounds work together to make great music.
Lots of mixing software comes with preset settings, and you will probably find a preset that fits the type of music that you are working on, be it hip hop, rock or something else entirely. You use the preset with your music and suddenly it sounds absolutely wonderful, but…that isn’t quite the case. Often it just adds loudness which is great for some genres of music like Techno but it doesn’t always work for other styles of music. Each song is unique in its own right and it deserves its own sound. Practice and learn how to tweak music yourself, don’t take shortcuts or use presets until you know how to mix music. Once you learn how to mix music you won’t want to use presets at all.
Finding Your Own Sound
Music is inherently a creative venture there aren’t a lot of rules to follow when it comes to creating music. Your goal should be to make something that sounds good. You will spend a lot of time playing around until you find the sound you want. Don’t be afraid to experiment or not be perfect the first time out.
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is a necessary part of mixing your own music and there are all kinds of DAWs on the market that will get the job done. How do you choose the right software that is going to work for you? You have to balance cost against the features that you are going to need. Here are some of the things that you need to consider before buying a DAW.
How much can you afford to spend?
There are some pretty big differences in price tags when it comes to software and on top of that each piece of software has different pricing levels. The more features included in the package the more you are going to pay. Some programs like Garageband aren’t that expensive but ProTools, on the other hand can get very expensive. Find your budget and work within it.
Mac or PC
What are you currently running a PC or a Mac? Not all tools will work on both, for example Garageband will only work on a Mac computer. Double check first to make sure that it is compatible with the computer you have.
How do you want to use it?
Every DAW on the market will let you do basic things like record and tinker a bit with the sound but if you want to use it for electronic music production not all software will give you what you want. Some are better with MIDI or loops so check into the software’s strengths before you make the purchase. If you are going to be doing your own composing then again some software is better than others.
What is the customer support like?
If you are not the most technical person in the world or you are spending a couple of hundred dollars on software you want to make sure that you get adequate support when you need it. Some open source software doesn’t offer anything in the way of support and some of the more expensive software spends a lot of money on their customer service teams. This is where you want to read reviews and check and see what they are offering and what other customers are saying.
What is your level of experience?
There will be purists out there that will tell you that you need some type of software to be a “pro” that is not the case. ProTools is a pretty advanced piece of software and may not be the greatest tool for the beginner. Garageband may not have all the features that a more advanced user might want. The right software will depend a great deal on your skill.